The ecological momentary assessment (EMA) of eating behaviors represents an innovative, detailed and valid approach to capture the complexity of food intake and to overcome limitations of traditional dietary assessment methods. Moreover, EMA studies might generate a large variety of data (e.g., dietary, behavioral, physical, sociopsychological, and contextual information), thereby enabling to examine concurrent exposures and events. Due to the increasing number of studies in this field of research, here we systematically reviewed EMA methods for the assessment of dietary intake in epidemiological studies, and discussed implications and perspectives for future research. Our study summarized several protocols and platforms that may be applied to assess diet in terms of eating frequency, choices, and habits. Nearly 38% of studies used an event-contingent strategy by asking participants to report foods and beverages consumed in real-time at each eating occasion. Instead, approximately 55% of studies used a signal-contingent prompting approach that notified the participants to record their dietary consumption. The remaining studies used a combination of event- and signal-contingent protocols to compare their accuracy or to improve the assessment of dietary data. Although both approaches might improve the accuracy and ecological validity of dietary assessment—also reducing the burden for participants—some limitations should nevertheless be considered. Despite these limitations, our systematic review pointed out that EMA can be applied in various fields of nutritional epidemiology, from the identification of determinants of dietary habits in healthy people to the management of patients with eating or metabolic disorders. However, more efforts should be encouraged to improve the validity and the reliability of EMA and to provide further technological innovations for public health research and interventions.
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